Banzaidyne Press

"Heavy Gear: Prices of Duty, Part One"

20 Summer TN 1936

Doctor Helena Matsuo breathed a deep sigh of relief as she read the patient status reports on her computer pad. One of the worst outbreaks of Montcalm Fever she had ever seen had been contained because she had noticed an strange insect bite.

A couple of weeks before, she'd been asked to speak to a class at a Coronado elementary school. She'd given her usual talk about the Treaty of Coronado, and how soldiers from both the Mekong Dominion and the United Mercantile Federation were working in the Coronado Defense Forces to learn and help from each other. The talk was a big hit, though Helena had to admit it was mostly because most of the children had never seen a Peacekeeper up close before.

When one student raised his hand to ask yet another question about the "Karl Cheung: Mekong Peacekeeper" video show, his shirt sleeve rolled down to reveal an insect bite with long red streaks running down his arm. Immediately, she took the child to the school nurse, then to the emergency room at Coronado General as the child collapsed. Blood tests indicated the presence of the Montcalm Fever virus, and a call had gone throughout the county for screenings and inoculations. Thankfully, most everyone that displayed symptoms were in the early stages of the infection, when it could be stopped easily. As she sat in the Hong Kong Crusaders' mess hall reading the reports, Helena thanked her ancestors again for putting her in the right place at the right time.

"Here's your cawfee, Doctor," said a medical orderly as he handed her a cup.

"Mmm, thank you," Helena said gratefully. She took a long sip as she got up and left the mess hall. Feeling the caffeine run through her veins, she asked the orderly, "How is Sergeant Ortega doing?"

"No real change, Doctor," the orderly replied. "His white count's varied by a couple of points, but otherwise he's the same as this morning."

"Damn it," Helena muttered as they walked down the hallway, cursing once again Miguel Ortega's reluctance to admit it when anything was wrong. Every other Crusader with symptoms had reported to the infirmary immediately, but Ortega had denied anything was wrong until he collapsed yesterday morning, half-delirious with fever. He'd been unconscious since then, deep in the advanced stages of Montcalm Fever.

Helena was still studying the computer pad as she turned a corner and walked straight into Colonel Sanlander. Fortunately for both of them, the coffee cup had a spillproof lid. As they recovered from the collision, Helena apologized, "I'm terribly sorry, Colonel, I didn't see you."

"That's, that's quite all right, Doctor. Excuse me," Sanlander said tersely as he continued down the hall, followed by the rest of the Crusaders' command officers and staff. As she watched them walk away, Helena's eyebrow raised involuntarily. Not only was it unusual for Sanlander to be so short with anybody, but the lack of any real apology rankled her Mekongese sense of decorum.

"Hmm. I wonder how the war's going?" said the orderly.

At that remark, Helena shrugged off the slight. After all, the entire planet had descended into war just the other day - what was a minor breach of etiquette compared to that?

As Helena and the orderly entered the infirmary, the duty nurse looked up at them from her desk and said into a telephone handset, "Oh, she just walked in. One moment, please." The nurse placed the call on hold and said, "Doctor Matsuo, you have a call on line 3. There's a video feed on standby."

"Very well, I'll take it in my office," Helena replied as she handed the computer pad back to the orderly. "No changes in Ortega's treatment regimen. I'll look in on him in a few minutes." She rubbed her tired neck as she walked into her office, idly wondering if there was a good masseuse in Coronado. She flopped down into her chair and activated her computer's wallscreen. "Computer, accept incoming video call," she said before taking another sip of cawfee.

Instead of someone's face, though, the wallscreen flickered to the insignia of the Mekong Peacekeepers. A male voice said, "Captain-Warder Helena Matsuo?"

Helena gulped down her cawfee in astonishment. "Yes?"

"Day word and line status, please."

"Uh ..." Helena said as she fumbled around her desk, looking for the piece of paper with the day's code word written on it. It had been so long since she was officially contacted by the Peacekeepers, she had let herself get lazy with the security procedures. "Um, this is not a secured line, and the day word is, uh ..." she said as she found the piece of paper, "... 'Mandolin.'"

She could almost hear the man at the other end of the line shaking his head as he said, "Confirmed. Stand by for Inspector-Warder Tarakaso."

Helena let out an exasperated sigh, wondering how her ancestors could turn on her like this. Not only was Tarakaso a complete asshole, but he also led the faction within the Peacekeepers most opposed to Mekongese participation in the Treaty of Coronado. He was Helena's superior officer, though, so she took a deep, calming breath and pushed her feelings to the back of her mind.

She remembered to come to attention just as Tarakaso's face snapped onto the screen. "Warder Matsuo, such a basic task as verifying your identity when acknowledging an official communication should not pose such difficulties. This will not be a positive influence on your next performance review."

Helena had a suggestion as to what he could do with his performance review, but she bit it back, saying only, "Yes, sir. It won't happen again."

"Oh, I can guarantee that," Tarakaso said with a sneer.

Helena's mind raced as she drove aimlessly through the early evening. She'd half expected it once the North had declared war against the South, but she had hoped for enough time to help her medical staff to make some kind of transition. She'd argued with Tarakaso for almost an hour for a delay, but he had been adamant. He had also been gloating, which was the part that really pissed her off. He seemed to be enjoying the possibility that his orders would leave the Crusaders in deep trouble if there was an emergency.

The same question ran through her mind like a skipping audio disk.

What am I going to do?

Without planning to, Helena realized she'd driven to Colonel Sanlander's house. She thought about just driving by and letting him find out when it was officially announced in the morning, but she couldn't let herself do that. It is my duty as the senior Peacekeeper present to inform my commanding officer of the situation, she told herself as she drove into the driveway.

No, that's not it, she admitted as she shut off the engine. I've served with him too long to just blow him off. I owe him this much. She tried to think of a way to soften the blow as she got out of the car and walked to the front door. As she rang the doorbell, though, she realized that just wasn't possible.

The house's lights were on in spite of the late hour, and soon the door opened to reveal Sanlander still in uniform. "Doctor Matsuo," he said with genuine surprise, "what brings you by?"

Helena tried to speak, but her voice escaped her for a moment. Finally, she blurted out the words, "The Mekong Dominion has decided to withdraw from the Treaty of Coronado. All Peacekeepers have been immediately recalled."

Continue to Part Two

Author's Note: Details about the Treaty of Coronado are available at the Meet the Hong Kong Crusaders page.

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